NUI Galway study on empathy shows benefit of youth work and culture

A new study undertaken by researchers at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway (UCFRC ) assessed the attitudes and values of 700 12 to 16 year old youths in Ireland with regard to empathy, social values and civic behaviour.

The study, funded by the Irish Research Council, also explored the degree to which such values and behaviours are promoted across Irish policy and curriculum. The research is among the first in Ireland to focus on the experiences of younger adolescents in relation to empathy and social values.

Principal Investigator, Dr Bernadine Brady from the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, said as young people in Ireland are now exposed to a much wider array of influences than previous generations, it is important to gain an insight into their values and attitudes in relation to empathy, social responsibility and civic behaviour and to understand the factors that influence these values. Our research shows that parents, peers, schools, and local communities continue to have a strong influence on youth social values.”

Overall, the study found that young people showed high levels of empathy and social responsibility values but low levels of civic behaviour (for example, offering to help someone at school, helping out in your community ). Young people reported that while it is easy to feel empathy for others in society, it is more difficult to actively help or engage in prosocial responding.

Some of the factors that inhibited young people from responding were not knowing what to do or fear of showing weakness. Girls scored higher than boys on measures of empathy, social responsibility, and civic behaviour. Taking part in civic education at school, experiencing an open classroom climate, and having parents and a peer groups that endorse pro-social values were found to positively influence young people’s values. Participation in youth work and extracurricular activities (including arts, music, and drama ) was also linked to higher levels of empathy, social responsibility and civic behaviour.

The study highlights a number of opportunities for Irish policy and curriculum support for empathy and social values. Despite the increasing support for Social and Emotional Learning, it found that academic achievement remains the key priority in the formal education sector. Social and Emotional Learning in schools, the study found, tends to devolve to a small number of interested teachers and they can be reluctant to use the active methodologies associated with such learning. The study recommended that more opportunities be provided to young people to engage in civic behaviour, such as social action projects or volunteering both inside and outside of schools.

UNESCO Chair Professor Pat Dolan from NUI Galway, said that the current policy framework places the greatest emphasis on developing socio-emotional skills through the formal education system. Considerably more attention could be put on the role of informal and non-formal settings, such as home, youth work and community, in the development and promotion of empathy and related skills and values.”

The research was launched in Dublin last Saturday, as part of a ten-year celebration of the award of the UNESCO Chair in Children, Youth and Civic Engagement to NUI Galway’s Professor Pat Dolan. UCFRC Patron, actor Cillian Murphy and Professor Pat Dolan co-hosted an evening of ‘in conversation’ pieces featuring a number of contributions from celebrated Irish artists including author Sally Rooney, poets Rita Ann Higgins and Louis de Paor, moderated by writer and broadcaster John Kelly.

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